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David Heath Reports on a Range of New Health and Benefit Policies

Friday 19 November 2010, 12:28
By David Heath

[Copy from David Heath MP for Somerset Standard on Thursday 18th November 2010]

Personal Budgets and Respite Care for the Elderly and those with Disabilities

David Heath MPOver the years I've often supported local carers groups in the Frome area. Those who look after relatives do so out of love, but at the same time they bear a very substantial burden, and incidentally save the taxpayer a huge amount of money. I have always thought that people who take on such a duty should get a great deal more help to do so.

In the present mood of economic gloom, it's very good to see something really positive emerging, needless to say almost completely ignored by the national press. This week my colleague health minister Paul Burstow MP, who as long as I have known him has championed in particular the needs of elderly people, unveiled a series of new proposals which I think could transform our care of older people and those with disabilities.

I won't go into the details here, but the new plans are based on two key proposals. One is for personal budgets, which means that for the first time people as individuals will have control of their care needs rather than service providers. The other is a guarantee of respite care, which as any carer will tell you is critical to their own well-being, giving them the chance to recharge their batteries and simply have time for themselves. And it's backed with the cash to make it happen. Good news.



[Copy from David Heath MP for Western Gazette on Thursday 18th November 2010]

A Single Universal Welfare Benefit

David Heath MPBritain has one of the most complicated tax and benefits systems in the world. In my advice surgeries I regularly meet people who simply aren't getting what they are entitled to, or who find that the system simply isn't delivering fairly for them. I've long argued for a completely integrated tax and benefit system, and as a government we're committed to achieving just that, but it is a fiendishly difficult thing to do from where we are now, and so I very much welcome what the Department of Work and Pensions has come up with in terms of at least simplifying the benefit side. The basic proposal, to replace a whole raft of working-age welfare benefits with a single universal benefit, a basic allowance topped up by additional elements to meet the costs arising from caring and family responsibilities, and disability and housing needs, seems to me essentially right.

Help for the Least Well Off

What hasn't really come over is that this is actually very good news for those on the lowest incomes. There is a pledge to spend an extra £2 billion on these reforms in the period up to 2014-15, and that will go to supporting the least well off. It will put an end to the constant form-filling which is involved at present, and people will know much better where they stand if they take a job. Take-up will clearly improve, one of the big problems at the moment, with many people in low-paid jobs failing to get the help they ought to have.

Helping Make Work Pay

It also deals with the problem faced by many people at the moment, that if they take employment they can often end up either worse off or barely better-off than they were because of withdrawal of benefits. And under the new rules, people will be able to keep much more of their wage before the benefit taper kicks in ; that may be especially helpful to some disabled people who may find part-time work is most suitable.

Lastly, and this is important, there will be no cash losers. Where the new, simpler system would produce a lower entitlement than the present system, then those already receiving benefits will be protected.

The Furore over Sanctions

As I said, the press furore is about sanctions, but I think it's grossly over-stated. Yes, there are sanctions, although the media have only concentrated on the most severe. But the whole point is that they act as a deterrent. The most severe sanctions are intended only to be applied in exceptional circumstances where people systematically and repeatedly abuse the system. There are appeal rights if people feel treated unfairly and there remains a system of hardship support for the most vulnerable.

The use of sanctions will be up to the discretion of Jobcentre Plus advisers. They will use their judgement as to whether someone has a genuine reason for not taking a particular job, such as that it cannot be made to fit with their childcare arrangements.

Similarly with the mandatory work activity, aimed at a small group of people who have been stuck on benefit and are feeling completely demoralised. The adviser will have to believe that it is in the interests of the individual concerned to try something different. They'll have a time-limited four week period of activity that aims to break the spiral of despondency; to get people out of the house, into a routine, put something new on their CV and see that they are contributing to society. It is not intended to be a job in itself, nor as a sneaky way of replacing paid jobs that are being cut elsewhere in the system. Getting someone involved in community work on a committed basis for four weeks will also have an impact on the minority who are quietly working whilst claiming out-of-work benefits.

I'm sure there will be plenty more discussion before these proposals find their way to the statute book. But far from being a draconian assault on the jobless, it seems to me they make a lot of sense.


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